Pauline Mukabi with six children outside her home in Taveta, Kenya

How the Kenya Water Crisis Impacts Education and Perpetuates Poverty

Water is the building block of life — so in Kenyan communities lacking access to safe water, it can feel as though the potential of families’ lives is being stripped away.

The physical challenges alone are daunting. Every cell in our bodies relies on proper hydration. We can’t live without having water, but when families in remote communities are forced to quench their thirst from unsafe sources, they are often punished by painful waterborne diseases caused by bacteria, parasites and other contaminants. In such cases, water scarcity puts lives at risk.

Of course, life should be much more than survival — and so the other impacts of water scarcity must be considered too. We must understand how a lack of water diminishes a community’s quality of life, impacting families emotionally and spiritually.

For example, in communities without easy access to safe water, many people’s lives must revolve around the pursuit of this essential resource. The search for water consumes their time, and it forces them to make costly sacrifices that will influence the trajectory of their lives.

In making these sacrifices, children are among those who suffer most — often because they have the most to lose. In communities facing water scarcity, water-related chores can dramatically impact a child’s education and limit his or her chances of ever escaping poverty.

Only by working together as the Church can we overcome these challenges and provide the poor with safe water, lasting hope and a brighter future!

Agnes Mwaka Matenge and her daughter, Defence, outside their home in Sagalla, Kenya
Agnes Mwaka Matenge and her daughter, Defence, often collect water from a polluted pond in their home village of Sagalla, Kenya.

The Average Morning for a Child Without Safe Water

In communities without safe, reliable drinking sources, women and children are traditionally responsible for finding water each day. They typically wake up before dawn to visit distant canals, lakes or shallow wells before the line of thirsty families grows too long. They might walk miles in the dark — risking assault, snake bites and other animal attacks — as they hurry to reach the water sources on time.

This arduous process can take hours, and if other families have already gathered, children might wait at length before they can even take a turn at filling their jerrycans. Some families are fortunate enough to have donkeys that help lighten the load for the return journey. The poorest children, however, must carry their heavy containers all the way home, taking great pains not to spill a drop of their hard-earned water.

From here, as you’ll see, a child’s journey can take many paths — but no matter where the rest of their day leads them, they will likely need to collect water at least once or twice more to meet their family’s daily needs. School, homework and catechism often take a backseat to this all-consuming chore.

Education can help children escape poverty, but many students are missing school due to waterborne diseases and the time-consuming chore of water collection.

How Water Scarcity Affects Education

After returning home from their exhausting journey, many children face a difficult choice: to attend school or not.

If the process of collecting water has taken too long, many boys and girls end up arriving late to class. They struggle to catch up with the lesson already in progress. Teachers face challenges as well. They experience frequent interruptions from students arriving at varying times throughout the morning, making it much more difficult to deliver an effective lesson plan.

There can be other challenges too. If students arrive too wet and muddy from collecting water in lakes or hand-dug ground holes, some schools will turn them away at the door. Given these difficulties, many children simply decide to stay home, allowing themselves more time to collect water and help with other household chores, such as tending their families’ crops.

Health also plays a role in keeping children home from school. Kenya, like many developing nations, presents a very high risk for waterborne diseases, including bilharzia, typhoid fever, and bacterial and protozoal diarrhea. Students frequently miss class due to sicknesses contracted from the very water they have worked so hard to collect.

With the odds stacked against them, many students fall so far behind in their lessons that they eventually drop out of school altogether. They know that education could provide their only pathway out of poverty, but the immediate necessity of collecting water supersedes any dream for the future.

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Eunice Kathumbe Thiani outside her home in Kamtonga, Kenya
Eunice Kathumbe Thiani is raising two children, Jacinta and Steven, in Kamtonga, Kenya. Her children frequently miss school to help collect water. Eunice said, “Our problem here in Kamtonga is water. Our children are praying to go to school but can’t because of water.”

How Kenya’s Water Crisis Perpetuates Poverty

With so many young people abandoning education, it is easy to see how water scarcity can perpetuate poverty. Often, the cycle of generational poverty looks something like this:

  1. 1. Many low-income families cannot afford to live in larger cities and towns. Instead, they reside in remote communities that lack basic infrastructure, such as running water.
  2. 2. Without reliable access to life’s essentials, families must expend most of their time, money and energy on securing basic resources. Much of their limited income is spent either purchasing water from trucks that pass through the area or buying medicine to treat waterborne diseases. Most of their time is spent searching for and collecting water.
  3. 3. The constant search for water leaves little time for school, church, work or much else. Many students fall so far behind in their studies that they eventually drop out altogether.
  4. 4. Without an education, children grow up without access to important job opportunities that could help them elevate their socioeconomic situations. Frequently, they end up living in the same communities they have grown up in and facing the same challenges as their parents. Thus, the cycle of poverty begins again.

According to the CIA World Factbook, almost one-third of Kenya’s population lacks access to safe, clean water. Additionally, more than 36% live below the poverty line, nearly 20% struggle with illiteracy, and about 40% are unemployed or underemployed. It is reasonable to consider how these factors compound one another, with a high number of unimproved water sources contributing to rampant poverty, lack of education and one of the highest unemployment rates in the world.

Felicia, Amina and another villager collect water at a lake near Kamtonga, Kenya
Felicia (back) and Amina (front) collect water from a murky lake near Kamtonga, Kenya.

Felicia and Amina Struggle Without Clean Water

In the community of Kamtonga, Kenya, Felicia Ndunge, 14, is all too familiar with the conflict between water collection and education. Every morning before school, she and her sister Amina, 12, make two back-and-forth trips to the nearest lake — a journey of about 2.5 miles each way.

The girls must rise before dawn in order to complete their task in time for class, and once the day is done, they will return to the lake at least twice more. That’s four round trips and 20 miles traveled each day. The journey is fraught with perils, as wild animals lurk along the path — and the lake water the girls drink is not much safer. It is visibly polluted with mud and animal droppings. Waterborne diseases commonly plague Kamtonga’s children.

Girls like Felicia and Amina have little time to study, attend Mass, rest, play and finish other chores. Lost time and frequent health ailments are slowly stripping away their future. Moved with compassion for such children, our longtime partner, Father Fabian Hevi, is striving to provide a solution — but in order to alleviate the water crisis in communities like Kamtonga, he requires the compassionate support of his fellow Catholics!

Father Fabian Hevi stands in front of a water kiosk in Mokine, Kenya
With help from Cross Catholic Outreach and compassionate U.S. donors, Fr. Fabian has successfully provided water systems for 43 communities. Today, he is working to share the blessing of clean water with 15 more communities in need!

How Catholics Can Change the Future for Children in Kenya

In John 10:10, Jesus says he came so that we could “have life, and have it abundantly.” We believe this is God’s loving desire for all his children around the world — especially those who are vulnerable and suffering because they lack life’s most basic essentials.

The health and future happiness of Kenya’s children are hanging in the balance as long as water scarcity persists. Without plentiful sources of safe, clean water, they face the immediate threats of thirst and waterborne illness while also contending with the long-term repercussions of forfeiting an education.

We believe our Lord has a good and perfect plan for each of these boys and girls. That’s why we are again partnering with Fr. Fabian to provide clean water systems for 15 communities in the Archdiocese of Mombasa and the Diocese of Machakos. Please join us in this mission of mercy, giving generously to provide safe water for 151,970 people.

Restore hope to precious children in need by giving Water for Life!

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